Heller McAlpin

Kate Walbert's most powerful novel yet is a case study in the perversities of power imbalances. This slim but by no means slight novel continues Walbert's explorations of how society's sexual biases and constraints have hampered women, a theme that has driven all six of her books, including A Short History of Women (2009) and her most recent, The Sunken Cathedral (2015). But with a timeliness so acute it feels ripped-from-the-headlines, His Favorites amps up the outrage and packs a punch far greater than its weight class.

Meet the charmer of the summer, an epistolary novel about two strangers dismayed by where their lives have taken them. Dissatisfied farmer's wife Tina Hapgood and lonely museum curator Anders Larsen initially connect over a shared fascination with the miraculous Iron Age archaeological find known as the Tollund Man, but their relationship soon deepens as they begin to excavate their own chosen life paths in a series of letters.

Imagine taking a sabbatical, not just from your job, but from your life. How about going even further and taking a yearlong break from yourself and the world, courtesy of an extended nap? That's the desperate plan of the unnamed 24-year-old narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh's bizarrely fascinating second novel.

Here's one advantage to discussing Rachel Cusk's trilogy of conversational novels: Because they're essentially plotless, there's little need to worry about spoiler alerts. The surprises and rewards of reading these books comes not from finding out what happens, but from getting pulled deep into their labyrinthine tête-à-têtes.

Caryl Phillips' latest novel, based on the troubled life of the writer Jean Rhys, is a lush exploration of the costs of colonialism, the limited possibilities for non-conformist women, and egregious power imbalances between genders and races. Rhys' life — she was born in the British colony of Dominica in 1890 and sent to school in England at 16 — is a fitting canvas for Phillips' perennial themes of displacement, alienation and muddled identity.

The title of Michael Ondaatje's atmospheric new novel — Warlight — refers most directly to the dimmed lights that guided emergency traffic during wartime blackouts, but it applies equally to the cloak of secrecy and uncertainty that blankets this haunting tale.

No one writes about close friendships and unconventional domestic arrangements between gay men and straight women with as much charm and flair as Stephen McCauley. When his first novel, The Object of My Affection, was published 31 years ago, same-sex marriage was somewhere over the rainbow, but his characters, gay and straight, banded together to create a new-fangled family.

In a year that hasn't exactly been full of joyful tidings, Julian Barnes' latest novel struck me as one of the saddest books I've read in some time. Beautifully done, but heartrending. It isn't about belligerent politicians, refugees fleeing for their lives, or schoolchildren being gunned down, but it's a tragedy nonetheless — albeit on a much smaller scale. The Only Story concerns the pained recollections of an aging Englishman's life-changing only love.

What do I love about this book? For starters: Dorothy Parker. Rebecca West. Hannah Arendt. Mary McCarthy. Nora Ephron. Janet Malcolm. With Sharp, Michelle Dean has essentially gathered ten 20th century literary lodestars for an all-female intellectual history party thrown between the covers of a single book. The price of admission to this critical gala: "the ability to write unforgettably," and being labeled "sharp."

One of the most frequently hailed signs of social progress in the last 50 years is the growing acceptance and mainstreaming of homosexuality in the Western world. No novelist has chronicled this salubrious sea change in cultural attitudes more beautifully than Alan Hollinghurst. Beginning with The Swimming-Pool Library in 1988 and continuing through The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst's grand literary project has been nothing less than to convey the changing status of homosexuality in British society in the last century.

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